Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Evolution of Air Distribution – The Story so Far

Now you are going to need to bear with me on this. Blogs are supposed to be brief and incisive but this one won’t. I just think that perhaps too many people assume that everyone knows about air distribution history and, by extension, fully understands the dynamics in play. I am not sure this is the case (why should they) so here is my understanding of how we got to where we are now.

It would take a book not a blog to go into the full detail and rationale so I will content myself and your patience by picking out the key players and change milestones in what will be a summary of what has happened and who are the movers and shakers. I think the customer needs to know the basics especially as they are ultimately paying unless they can do without at least one of the current cogs in the distribution mechanism.

Initially there was not much of an issue. The airlines worked in concert with each other and their supply chain and basically paid for everything required to distribute their product. They paid merchant fees to card companies, commission to agents (no such things as TMCs then) and fees to the GDS. Having picked up all these tabs they then sold their tickets with these costs built in to their fares. All of them did it so there was no problem Simple and reasonably effective in a well regulated, stable and growing travel market where little true competition existed.
As an example (and it varies hugely by area) airlines paid agents 10% commision and between 3 to 30% override, 1.5-3% card fees and 4% to 6% GDS charges.All of that bundled into the end ticket price.

Then things changed. Airlines expanded their route structures and became far more competitive with each other. The first sign of change was when ticket prices started to diversifyfrom airline to airline. In order to attract increasingly fickle travellers a fare differentiation was required. Carriers moved away from simply discounting their standardised global gross fare pricing and introduced corporate nets, yield managed specials and additional one-off deals.In one class alone you could end up with over a dozen fares each with their own restrictions and availability allocations.

The result was twofold. Firstly the ability to interchange tickets between airlines disappeared and secondly the need to mitigate pricing concessions made them look harder at their costs. Their distribution costs to be precise.

They found themselves in a real dilemma. The need to compete and discount was obviously threatening their profits (what there were) and simultaneously two other things happened. Low cost carriers with a totally different price model arrived who had to worry far less about convenience, timetables, airport locations and service which in turn encouraged corporations to view travel in a far more commoditised way. So, on one side they had to compete with carriers with a considerably lower cost base/tariff and on the other, a customer with a much harder stance towards price.

What became clear was that they could not continue paying the full cost of distributing their products whilst competing with new entrant pricing combined with more savvy buyers.Something had to give and what ‘gave’ was the air distribution model. After all, if you cannot beat the no frills airlines and professional buyers then the only option was to join them and challenge elsewhere in the travel merry-go- round.

I think their objectives were a mixture between the sound and the inevitable. The markets had clearly changed and if the end customer really wanted transparency and a lower cost model then give it to them. Whether they really wanted or needed it in the first place is a discussion for another day. Many of the arguments today are revolving around the desire for commoditisation coming head to head with the necessity for flexibility and uniformity of information and access.

There is another key influencing factor which is technology. Part of the reason why the main airlines feel both desirous and capable of change is that, for the first time there are other potential technology solutions out there. That is to say they are there if, and only if, the end users really do expect them to act individually rather than collectively with other provider’s inventory. Hence the current pressures on the GDS who provide all encompassing booking services and charge a high price for doing so. There is no way any individual airline can provide the diversity and product span that a GDS does.

The airlines (individually and at varying speeds) have called time on paying full distribution costs for all services to all customers. Unfortunately I do not see their goal as eradicating such costs. Their objective is to find what they see is the right home for these costs and then try to ensure the savings are not taken away by having to reduce prices to compensate the travellers, who will undoubtedly have to pay. Unless as I mentioned earlier a cog taken out of the distribution wheel. but which one?

So are there any expendable cogs? In some sectors of the market then probably yes. However, only if people recognise what they want and are prepared to accept the consequences and constraints of such. I think the line will be drawn between those corporations that want a controlled, managed and reported programme and others that choose a more deregulated approach where cheapest flights and few management ‘frills’ are acceptable.

If you want travel management you need knowledge and control. In order to do this you need someone to consolidate travel in all forms and package it into controllable chunks from as few sources as possible. At present this is best done through a GDS booking system, a travel management company and a mandated card programme. You take overall control of your travel, accept the price of doing so and form the right balance between value and all the other broader elements that complement your company ethos. Does anybody with a travel programme really want to run around numerous individual online airline sites and compare them when a GDS already does that in a one-stop environment?

On the other side if you want to maximise trip by trip savings there is no reason why approaching the cheapest distribution source and exploiting it until another one comes along is not the right way. To be frank the cheapest booking cost would be by going to an airline direct either independantly or through a TMC which is why carriers like American Airlines, Lufthansa etc are differentiating pricing and availability dependant on where the booking comes from. It does not by any means guarantee that overall trip price will be lower but the reservations element may be.

What I am begining to see happening is that airlines are finally differentiating between varying corporate needs and handling them individually. This part I applaud even though it has taken a long time and has a way to go. They are beginning to see the contrast between travel management and the very different service provided through Online Booking Agencies (OTAs) which, despite all the hype, focus on a different and smaller market that has a different list of demmands. It is this SME market and the OTAs that service them that are taking the brunt of current airline initiatives. The rest will follow.

Before I conclude let me set out the distribution milestones again as I see them:

1) Airlines have mainly eradicated standard agency commission payments but have failed to stop override and incentive payments. Whilst not totally successful it has enabled them to target better those they want to reward to a greater and more productive effect.
2) Agents responded by passing their new costs to the corporations by changing their contracts to management/transaction fees. End result? Most agencies protected their income and some grew it by ensuring remaining income from the airlines stayed with them and not passed on within their client deals. Airlines were forced to reduce prices to compensate customers.
3) GDS/Airline negotiations became far more aggressive. When you look at what airlines have to pay them, even for passenger cancellations and suchlike it is hardly surprising. Some airlines started charging TMCs for certain bookings to gain compensation. TMCs passed these costs on to the corporations but are still incentivised by GDSs which make airlines pretty mad as it is their fees that are funding them.
4) Various airlines changed some of the remaining IATA regulations regarding payment to shorten credit terms with TMCs and escalate penalties for perceived non compliance. A very much hidden cost that again the customer ended up collecting.I find it quite alarming how much cost comes into the chain via IATA and its interpretation of their own rules.
5) Credit/charge card usage has increased because of 4) as individual countries cut agency credit by 50% or more meaning TMC passed on the casflow deterioration to customers resulting in this migration to plastic . Ironic really as this area is very much a top target for airline cost reduction. Cards, like GDS charge wide and varying merchant fees to suppliers and these will be attacked robustly and very soon.

Where will this evolution take us? Airlines will continue fighting distribution costs. Instead of taking them all and then charging travellers through price they will try to dump them and leave the customer to pay separately. Meanwhile they will compensate by offering lower cost alternatives to those prepared to book direct. The battlefronts will be GDS fees, credit card merchant fees, cost of credit, TMC incentives and service deliverables. The customer will get what they say they want which is transparency and a unit price for everything. Currently I do not believe actual cost will go down. It will simply be realigned and will probably go up. If prices go down any further then there will be less suppliers, less choice and devolution not evolution.

It does not make sense that suppliers should pay for everything and then charge a correspondingly high price. Equally it does not make sense that the traveller gets all the bills and tries to negotiate their way out of them. I expect it is the way of the world and will provide yet newer business opportunities but regrettably the same old regurgitating costs.

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